Wednesday, May 27, 2009

New Spiritual Formation blog launched

On Tuesday, my friends Kyle and Jamin launched a new blog that's all about spiritual formation. They've asked me to be one of a dozen or so contributors. I'll be posting there about once a week. You can find my first post on the site here. The site is still in its early stages but take a look and let me know what you think.

In case you were wondering, "what exactly is spiritual formation?", here's the deal: Spiritual formation is all about the shaping of our inner life so that our outer life takes on a certain form. In a sense, everyone, from terrorists to saints, is being spiritually formed. Their hearts are taking on a certain character and disposition, for better or worse, depending on how they are being shaped in their thoughts, feelings, wills, bodies, and social context. Christian spiritual formation looks at what happens when we follow Jesus as his disciples (or students). It focuses on how we can better cooperate with the work of his Spirit in changing us from the inside out so that we resemble him all that we are and all that we do.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Something to ponder

Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.  For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes.  I know that by experience......That is why faith is such a necessary virtue:  unless you teach your moods "where they get off," you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion."  (C.S. Lewis, "Mere Christianity")

Monday, May 18, 2009

My first funeral

Monday morning of last week got off to an unexpected start.  My senior pastor stopped by my office and told me that three people connected to our congregation died this week. He was swamped with funeral preparations and with our Care Pastor in the hospital and unavailable, he asked if I would step in and perform one of the funerals.  I reluctantly said yes and for the next twenty-five minutes, I got a crash course in how to conduct a funeral.  

On Tuesday, I met with the widow and her oldest daughter.  I wrote the eulogy on Wednesday, met with my senior pastor for another brief preparation session that afternoon, and performed the funeral on Thursday morning.  

The experience was surreal.  I never met the man I was eulogizing.  His wife attended our church but he never came with her.  Fortunately, the family shared enough about him during our Tuesday morning meeting that I felt like I was able to honor him well.  Halfway through the service, during one of the hymns, I unexpectedly found my eyes welling up with tears.  I found myself torn:  do I let the grief and sadness wash over me and express empathy with the family, or do I pull back and lead the funeral.  I opted for the latter and hoped I didn't seem uncaring.  Someone had to lead this community of family and friends through the grief process and the closure of a funeral and burial and I figured that was my job.

I can't remember the last time I felt so alone and so invisible.  The family rightly focused their attention on the grieving matriarch, offered her comfort and support, and (rightly as well) ignored me.  My role was to serve.  But this was my first funeral and I wanted someone to comfort me and encourage me through this difficult task.  I prayed and begged God to speak through me and empower me to serve this group of grieving friends and family and honor the life of one they loved so much.

I felt honored to be able to serve this family in their time of need and intimidated by how small I felt in such a huge role as presiding over a funeral and leading prayer at a graveside.  It was definitely an experience I'll never forget.

Friday, May 8, 2009

A Mother's Day like No Other

Five years ago, I found myself standing before an aisle full of Mother's Day cards at the local Hallmark store. This would be a Mother's day like no other. As a present for Mother's day, I had flown my Mom down to Miami for the weekend (where I was living at the time). My life was undergoing a major alteration and in the midst of this transition, I needed to her to know that her place in my life would remain unchanged. I hoped the weekend in Miami would help ease any anxiety she might be feeling.

Mom hadn't arrived yet and I was looking for the right card. But this card wasn't for her. I'd already purchased her card. This card was for someone else. Someone I had known about my entire life but had never met. This one was for my birthmother.

Several months earlier, after resisting years of gentle encouragement from my Mom (whom I was convinced was watching way too many positive adoption reunion stories on Oprah), I finally got my nerve up and contacted the archives unit of the Children's Home Society of Florida, my adoption agency.

Thirty seven years earlier, my a nineteen year old birthmother found herself with an unexpected pregnancy. At the insistence of her mother, she left her home in Connecticut and moved in with her cousins in Tarpon Springs, FL until I was born.  She gave birth to me that summer on June 10th. Seventeen days later, I was adopted by a young couple in Clearwater, FL.

Betty, my adoption caseworker, conducted the search for my birthmother. I thought it would take months or even years to find her.

She located her in about two hours. 

"She sounds really nice. You've got four siblings, five nieces and nephews, and one more on the way." 

I hung up the phone in shock.  Brothers and another sister.  More nieces and nephews.  It was almost too much to absorb.  My mysterious past suddenly came into focus.  My life-long questions began to have answers.

A few agonizing months later, in March of 2004, I received my first letter and photo from Alice, my birthmother. I learned about my "half" siblings: three brothers and a sister.  That April, we spoke on the phone and heard each other's voice for the first time.

We met that summer on June 27th at the duck pond near her home in Connecticut. Ironically, it was the same day I was adopted into the Owen family thirty-seven years prior. Her husband Hank, (not my birthfather) was with her. He walked up to me, threw his arms around me, and with his thick New England accent, said, "Welcome to the family!"  I gave Alice a big hug, not realizing that this was the first time she had ever held me.  She feared not being able to go through with the adoption process had she held me as an infant.

Though there is much, much more I could share, suffice it to say that my reunion with Alice and her side of my biological family has been a postive one. My adopted Mom has been a great support through it all and Mother's Day hasn't been the same since. This Sunday, two sets of strangers who knew about each other but never met will receive cards on Mother's day: my birthmother will get a card from me and my Mom a card from Alice.

Happy Mother's day Mom and Alice. Much love to you both for the irreplaceable roles you play in my life.

Me and my Moms at my wedding in June of 2007 (Mom on left, Alice on right)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Hard or Easy?

I love teaching.  Give me an interested audience and a topic I'm passionate about and I'm one motivated speaker.  Tuesday night was no exception.  It was the final night of the Alpha Course. a twelve week course that introduces Christianity to those who want to know more.  Before me was a roomful of people from all across the spiritual interest spectrum:  spiritual seekers, beginners, and "returners".  These men and women spent twelve weeks covering every aspect of Christianity:  everything from who is Jesus and who is the Holy Spirit to what is prayer and how does God guide us?  Tuesday night was the wrap up session.  

My topic for the evening was "What now?"  In light of all they had heard, discussed and seen over the past twelve weeks, what now? As a discipleship pastor, I'm passionate about motivating men and women to become committed followers of Jesus.  As I spoke, I asked my audience if they thought Christianity was hard or easy?  For on the one hand, Jesus said that we had to give up everything we had in order to become his disciples (Luke 14:33).  But on the other hand, he said that for those who choose to follow him, his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).  So which is it?  It it hard or easy to follow Him?  

I think the answer is both: It is hard to give up your way of life.  It is hard to die to self and turn the driver's seat of your life over to Jesus.  But let's face it, being in the driver's seat ain't all its cracked up to be.  The on-going drama of life played out all around us, the family friction, the daily struggles, addictions and difficulties, the daily soap operas of "ordinary life" that we see acted out all around us are fraught with difficulty.  Much of this is a result of our stubborn determination to handle life on our own and our refusal to face our need to look for help from someone bigger than us.  It might be hard to turn your life over to Jesus, but it's not easy living without Him.  

In fact, it is much easier to live with Him on the throne of your life.  As I spoke that night, I quoted a favorite philosopher of mine, Dallas Willard, (professor of Philosophy at USC). Though there is a cost to following Jesus, Willard argues that there's a greater cost when we don't follow him.   He writes that not following Jesus, "will cost you abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God's overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, and the power to do what is right and resist the forces of evil."  In short, he argues that not following Jesus will cost you the abundance of life that He said he came to bring (John 10:10).

Yes, it's hard to turn our lives over to Jesus.   But when we do, when we enter into a relationship with Him and receive His forgiveness and!  We find ourselves living an eternal kind of life, a life that grows and flourishes over time.  

And that's a lot easier than life as usual.